Category Archives: Great Highland Bagpipe Solo

People playing solo great highland bagpipes.

Highland Pipes in G

As with most of my piping adventures, this one starts with someone asking me how to do something and then I take it way too far; and end up somewhere really cool! A local piper asked me, “How do you get your drones to tune to A440?” The answer, brass tubing! For bass drones and reeds, you’ll probably want 3/8″ K&S engineering brass tube, for tenors maybe the same or maybe 11/32″. It has to go on the outside of the reed tenon (where the hemp on the reed goes) but also on the inside of the drone reed seat (so it can’t be too big around). There are commercial drone extenders available but they do not get you down to A 440 Hz. The drone reed has to basically be sticking out the bottom of the drone stock just a little bit to have any chance of getting to A 440 Hz. See photo below of a tenor drone.

brass_drone_reed_extender

I’ve had limited success with 1/4″ tube put inside the bottom of the drone reed. It would seem to be drone reed dependent.

Of course, since I have yet to take this too far (there’s nothing new so far) I’m not actually going to use this to play with an A 440 Hz chanter (although I do have one). I’m going to use these now super flat drones to play with a normal A 470+ Hz chanter. Except, I won’t be tuning the drones to A but to the note G. Woot!

These are 1950’s Henderson pipes with Rocket drone reeds, Colin Kyo Pipeband/Samurai chanter, Shawn Husk chanter reed.

Grimstock and Dick’s Maggot – Watch this performance on YouTube

Keelman Ower the Land – Watch this performance on YouTube

Untitled and Ulverston Volunteers – Watch this performance on YouTube

What’s tricky about tuning the drones to G is you have to retune the entire chanter. In a pinch it means taping every note except the Gs, and maybe F(#). I also tune the C to a C natural so as to play in the key of G. The tuning offsets can be had in the this chart (look at the middle table, the top table is the normal offsets for tuning against A drones; the bottom table is the offsets for tuning against B drones).

I can tell, you’re excited, because it sounds so cool! Hey, you can do it too! How? Go buy some brass tube (hobby or art shops usually have this), a tube cutter, and a cheap hand reamer (harbor freight has these). You’ll also need some teflon tape to seal the gap between the tube and the drone reed whether the tube goes on the outside of the drone reed tenon or the inside. Don’t forget the tube will have to also seat well in your drone reed seats. How to actually get it down flat enough is up to your pipes and your chosen drone reed. I’m using old Naill spec Rockets in the recordings above (there’s an “8” written on the bass drone tongue but that’s the only marking). The tube will need to be cut long enough so that the drone reed sticks out into the bag just a tad (bass drone stocks for tenors anyone?).

You’ll also need a chanter that doesn’t mind a lot of tape. I went through 3 before I found one that worked well enough for my liking: old carved up CK, Kron Medalist, and finally, third time’s a charm, a new CK Pipeband/Samurai prototype chanter (Thanks Murray Huggins!). Make sure you set your equal temperament regular old Korg $20 tuner to read in tune/green light on low and high G (instead of low and high A). Then use the offsets from the table linked above to dial in your chanter. Again, I tune the C to a C natural so there’s lots of tape on my C (this is really where things can get wonky, you’ll note a reluctant chanter when it is hesitant to switch to the C natural note if coming from B or D). I guess you could learn to cross finger C natural, but meh, I’m lazy. You could also buy a Boderiou Bagad chanter that comes with pastilles (inserts) that turn your C into a C natural for you (also F into F natural if you wanted to play in C major, muahahahahahahaha).

Lastly, you’ll need some tunes to play! Never fear, I’ve been playing smallpipes like this for a few months now and I’ve collected a lot of tunes in the key of G (again you need a C natural here; what’s the point of G drones if you aren’t going to play in G major?). The tunebook of my collected tunes can always be found on my Free Tunebooks page (you’re looking for the “A dorian chanter tunebook” as G major has the same notes as A dorian). I update it as I find new to me, but not copyrighted, tunes; always check back to see if there’s some new tunes. Also hit me up if you know of tunes that would work but I don’t have them in the book!

Unstable Drones? Check your E! + AyrFire chanter & MacLellan reed

I reordered an AyrFire chanter from Colin MacLellan after selling my last one. Anyone who reads the blog enough will know I’m a big fan of Colin Kyo chanters but if you take a gander at my Modern Chanter Review page, the AyrFire and Henderson solo chanter were two chanters I regretted having sold. So, the AyrFire being available only in plastic at a steal of a price of only 118 pounds sterling with reed protector and reed included was the first to get repurchased as I’ve spent way too much dough on new to me bagpipes this year already (A smallpipes, C smallpipes, and an old Sinclair set).

Anyways, I recall the AyrFire chanter having reasonable finger spacing and excellent tuning. This still remains the case. Most of today’s initial practice session with the chanter involved unsteady drones as I was playing a set I don’t usually play, my Glencoe pipes. Glencoe pipes were made by Matt Marshall up in Canada who just recently got in contact with Ron Bowen stating he’s alive and well so I was feeling a bit nostalgic. However, it wasn’t the drones that were unsteady, it was the tuning of the chanter!

Being the first time I’ve played this chanter with this brand new reed, I had to sort the tuning. I’d tune the drones to low A spot on but then when I’d start playing the drones would go out of tune again, until I got back to low A. High A was a good octave right over the low A so that wasn’t the problem. So what gives? Well, the E was just a tad bit sharp, and so when I’d start playing my ear would hear that the E was out of tune and involuntarily I would adjust my blowing to play softer to flatten the E. After the two As, E is the most prominent note when tuning against the drones. The E harmonic on the drones is next largest after the A harmonics, so an an out of tune E is VERY easy to spot. I was thinking, dang, why did I play these drones to feature the chanter if they’re going to be unsteady on me? Well, once I put a spot of tape on E so I’d have to blow the chanter out to correct pressure the drones magically became steady! Why? Because I was no longer having to underblow to flatten the E to pitch. Voila! So, next time you think your drones are unsteady because they’re in tune at the start when you tune to your As, but then they go out once you start playing, check that your E is in tune and that you aren’t changing your blowing pressure to try to correct the tuning of E with pressure instead of what you should be using = tape!

What this also means is that steady blowing is not exactly the key to an in tune pipe. An in tune pipe is the key to steady blowing. I tell my band members this all the time. You blow, I tune. Tuning is my job, not yours. Don’t “blow tone” because then you’re searching for tuning and we’ll never get there. You blow, I tune.

So, on with the recordings. Glencoe (Lawrie spec) drones with old Canning drone reeds (carbon fiber bass) with AyrFire poly chanter with MacLellan pipe reed (presumably medium-hard because that’s what I asked for when I ordered direct from Colin). The strength of the reed is perfect! I might even go for a hard reed next time as if this one breaks in further it might be a tad too easy. The high A is beautiful and blends with the drones nicely. The F sparkles something nice too. It is a very nice chanter. I even threw my hard bottom hand tunes at it and my hand had no trouble adjusting to the chanter which has a slightly longer finger spread on the bottom hand than the Colin Kyo. Some people might think I complain a lot of finger spacing and hole size, but really my point is normally SPACED holes, which the AyrFire chanter surely has. I had no trouble playing low hand strikes, the holes are right where I’d expect them to be based on the finger spread. In contrast there are several other modern chanters with oddly spaced holes which I have difficulty playing not because of the finger spread or the hole size, but because of the spacing! The holes just aren’t where my fingers expect them to be. I’ve played a long Naill practice chanter nearly all my life, so that’s where my fingers expect to find the holes.

On to the recordings! I’ve only got two because all the previous ones had me underblowing to find the E and as such, they had unsteady(er) drones. I’ve got tape on high G, E, D, and C. The chanter tuned nicely to 480 Hz which is exactly where my last one tuned. This is a nice chanter. With many band chanters toping 480+ these days, the AyrFire is an attractive alternative that is easily tuned, at a flatter pitch, at a comparable (or cheaper) price.

Mo Ghile Mear, O’Neili’s, and Ger the Rigger

March of the King of Laois, 1st Hype Cowboy Division, and Pressed for Time

Supporting Causes: la Marseillaise and “Trick or Treat”

Yesterday Paris was attacked and many lost their lives. I understand those who were in a stadium that was attacked starting singing the French national anthem. To show my support I arranged it for the bagpipe and the sheet music can be had by clicking here. It fits on the bagpipes quite well except it requires C and F natural in a couple spots if you’re to play the main melody, but dropping down to low A (which is the chord) is what I’ve done as my chanter’s C natural doesn’t sound very nice; either the C# or C is in tune, but not at the same time due to different taping requirements and both notes appear in the tune. There are also some transient high Bs in the ending phrases; I have substituted high As with what I think is minimal disturbance though I am not honestly very familiar with the melody. I guess I should try to play it on my friend’s new Kinnear smallpipe chanter with high B, F, and C natural keys…

la Marseillaise

One thing I appreciate about France from a piping perspective is the innovative piping of the Breton tradition and Bagad bands. Most notably, their use of minor scales, special chanters with pastilles for playing F and C natural without cross fingering, B instead of A drones (here’s a YouTube video of me playing a Scottish tune with my drones tuned to B and the scale adjusted accordingly), and the low F# instead of low G (other, older blog posts on these tunings here and here). These guys are real innovators and have adapted the highland bagpipes as needed to reflect their cultural traditions. A similar innovator is Lincoln Hilton, a piper in the SFU organization. He has recently put his compositions and arrangements, commonly employed by SFU, up for sale on his website with all proceeds going to fund cancer research in Australia in support of Andrew Bonar, a fellow SFU band member, who has recently been under treatment for cancer. One of Lincoln’s newest tunes is entitled “Trick or Treat” (link to his debut YouTube video playing the tune) for Halloween, the day before his fund raiser went live. This tune is awesome. It is in D minor (A phrygian) instead of our usual D major (A mixolydian), which means it requires an F and Bb instead of our usual F# and B. My tempo is dodgy but I’m working on it!

Link to mp3: Trick or Treat – Sinclair drones with Selbie tenors (a note about these at the bottom of this post), Redwood bass which is freaking awesome in this pipe, Colin Kyo chanter, Husk reed, 3M Scotch 35 vinyl electrical tape since my usual pinstriping tape isn’t wide enough to cover enough of the F# and B holes to flatten them as much as was needed to tune to D minor.

One issue with using alternate notes is how to tune them. Highland pipes are tuned using just intonation because all chanter notes must harmonize with the drones which are playing the note A (Bagad bands have developed sharper drones that tune to B thus necessitating special chanters where the notes more naturally harmonize with B drones). I’m still playing A drones, but I had to tape my chanter’s B down to Bb and my F# down to F, but how do I tune these notes? Luckily, I wondered about the tuning of non-standard notes back in 2013 (click the link) and had already figured out where these notes should tune if you were referencing a chromatic tuner which is useless for bagpipes unless you know which notes are supposed to register as “out of tune” and in which direction, sharp or flat, and by how much they need to be “out of tune” in order to be in-tune using the just intonation scale. That was a run-on sentence, no doubt.

Miscellaneous:

  1. Tenor drone reeds: I started this recording session with old Wygent tenor drone reeds at the recommendation of Shawn Husk on the bookface and while they sounded glorious, they are gloriously bold and thus a big pain to tune, and stay in tune. The slightest differences in tuning between the tenors were noticeably audible making for an unstable bagpipe. I still maintain the steadiness of mellow tenor, blended drones a la MacDougall is really a lack of boldness in the tenors especially with regard to higher overtones making them sound as if they’re locked in tune when really, you just can’t hear that they’re out of tune. I’m not complaining, it’s good enough for me! I gave up on the Wygents and plugged my Selbie tenors in (Ezee are also too tedious to tune for me). The Selbies are surprisingly mellow in these Sinclair tenors despite being quite bold in most other pipes (my 1950s Hendersons for example are impossible to tune with Selbie tenors for the same reason these Sinclairs are impossible to tune with Wygent tenors = the tenors are just too bold and rich). To clarify, you can no longer hear the wawawa due to the lower frequencies but the higher overtones still indicate the drones aren’t quite together, and it’s getting those higher overtones matched which I just don’t have the patience for.
  2. A friend gave this 3M Scotch 35 vinyl electrical tape a long time ago. It seems to hold for long periods without getting gummy. I haven’t tried it in super hot weather yet, but perhaps soon.

No Hornpipe Shakes for Me

Due to my focal dystonia, I am incapable of moving my E finger with any coordinated speed. The dystonia manifested in about my 9th year of piping and I’ve been playing for 19 years now. Since then I’ve gradually become able to play GDE grace note patterns, taorluaths, and even D doublings (but only from a higher note). This means I can also play hornpipe shakes from notes higher than D down to D or C fairly reliably. However, a lot of hornpipe shakes occur from notes below D or C and my focal dystonia still prevents that. From the top notes the pinkie and ring fingers are already up in the air and so I imagine they’re easier to pick up coming from a state of having already been in the air, but from a lower note the tension is already there and the contraction of my pinkie finger upon trying to play an E grace note kicks in and no E grace note comes out.

If you’ve listened to my blog for a while you might have noticed the odd tune where I’ve removed the hornpipe shakes in favor of delayed slurs. Tunes filled with hornpipe shakes I usually avoid posting to the blog but I figured I’d get over it and post a few of my favorites where I’ve had to remove the hornpipe shakes in order to make my fingers be able to play the tune.

The pipes are the new-to-me Sinclairs mentioned in the previous post. I had a go with Ezee in the tenors the other day which will be posted at the bottom but I’d like to feature the pipes with Selbie tenors which I much prefer. The Ezee are a bit richer, but also harder to tune. The Selbies are not as bold as the Ezee (which I find odd and opposite of what I’d expect). I like the Selbies more because they are easier to tune because they are less bold. Additionally, the Ezee tenors do not strike in well and cut out if blown in from a howling state which they are wont to do upon strike in. Basically, terrible reeds for a band pipe. Pulling off the tenor volume a bit with the Selbies also lets the Redwood bass shine quite remarkably in my opinion.

One thing you’ll have to put up with is the fine line this reed has between a crowing high A and a sharp high A. I need to pull this reed out just a tad so I can blow through the high A more consistently.

Recorder off to the left (tenor side):

Leaving Port Askaig and The Quaker – this one’s a bit rough and is provided only for comparison to the Ezee tenor recordings below since they mic was in the same spot as this recording

Recorder behind (drone side):

Hector the Hero, The Rock, 1st Hype Cowboy Division

Recorder off to the right (bass side):

Mason’s Apron and The Good Drying

Recorder behind but farther away (drone side):

Humours of Ballyloughlin, Scarce O’ Tatties, Old Chanter, and Leisa McCord

Here are the recordings using Ezee tenor drones with the Redwood bass. They all are recorded with the mic off to the left (tenor side).

Kalabakan, Bridge Something, High Road to Linton, Sleepy Maggie, and Dancing Feet

Room 35, Moonshine, and Glenlyon

What drone reeds to use in Sinclair bagpipes?

I recently acquired a set of (probably 1960s) Sinclair bagpipes.

sinclair

I mouth blew all my drone reeds and decided that a regular Ezeedrone bass or a short, inverted Ezeedrone bass was best. Many other bass drone reeds were muted. This set would be a small bore Sinclair set, I believe. Apparently early Sinclairs and maybe now modern Sinclairs have bigger bores in places, but with a bass bottom bore at 8 mm I think this set falls in line with the smaller bore pattern attributed to their age. Many tenor reeds had the opposite problem of being too bold. So I settled on a lovely set of Rockets until they wouldn’t sound regardless of bridle position once I added a chanter, so then I just went with straight Ezeedrone tenors.

In the recordings below, we’ve got the original Sinclair chanter paired with a Gilmour reed I’ve been playing for years that’s still too hard for me. It tunes right at Bb (low A = 466 Hz). I put tape on high G and D, and the B is flat, with the F sometimes flat. Short, inverted Ezeedrone bass and regular Ezeedrone tenor reeds. I thought the sound was good although the tenors lacked a little sparkle, in my opinion.

King of Laois and The Thornton jig

Neili’s and Ger the Rigger – POLKAS!!!

Pressed for Time, The High Drive, and The Big Yin – hornypipe type things

Troy’s Wedding, The Snuff Wife, and Thief of Lochaber

After a conversation with Stuart on the bookface (someone who also recently picked up a set of Sinclairs), he floated the idea of using Selbie tenors so I figured, why not? The redwood sounded a bit bold as did the Kinnaird but perhaps a plastic tongue vibrant reed would spruce up the tenors without making them too loud. (Thinking about it, I might try Canning next as they’re a bit bolder than Ezeedrone as well.) I mouth blew the Selbie tenors again and was pleasantly surprised so I went with it. Still using the short, inverted Ezeedrone bass but now with a 480 Hz Colin Kyo chanter.

Aires de Pontevedra, Muineira de Casu, Kittly Lie Over, Leisa McCord (EJ Jones), Rory Gallagher (Gordon Duncan) – this is quickly becoming my international jig set

I then decided I might play a slow air but I couldn’t help from getting the felling that there was some instability in the bass. So, I did something I never thought I would ever do. I reached for the Redwood bass drone reed to put it in. When I was mouth blowing the reeds it was one of the best sounding bass drone reeds, but in every other pipe I’ve tried this reed in, it isn’t very good. Primarily, it has a hard time starting. Well, in this pipe I think it sounds pretty darn glorious paired with the Selbie tenors which makes my favorite combo so far.

Fair Maid and Donella Beaton – let’s see how many times I can make the same mistake twice

Bessie McIntyre, Captain Lachlan MacPhail of Tiree, and Alick C MacGregor

Lastly, I figured I put the Redwood tenors in there to go with the bass, but ultimately I think the Redwood tenors are too bold.

Mo Ghile Mear, The Herring Wife, and Rakes of Kildare

Angus MacKinnon and Frank Thompson – the BBQ set (Angus Frank)

Which is your favorite?

What drone reeds to use in David Naill bagpipes?

I have had several inquiries about what drone reeds to use in Naill pipes as of late. The answer, I don’t know. There’s a guy in my band who plays Naills and has good tone with Crozier Carbon tenor reeds (original, not V2) and a polycarbonate non-inverted Canning bass reed. The Croziers are quite buzzy in the tenors as to be expected but it works well and generates a full sound. The buzziness is most apparent to me because I’m the drone tuner! From a few feet away it’s actually quite pleasant. I have 3 of these polycarbonate Canning bass reeds and they’re all just a tad different. I’ve noticed small differences in Canning tenor reeds before, so consistency seems to be an issue although Cannings are a good reed I regularly recommend.

I’ve been real fond of Redwood tenor reeds as of late so I told him to try them with a Kinnaird original bass. I believe Kinnairds to have a higher level of consistency and general appeal over the polycarbonate Canning bass and so I was hoping it would work well as it does in so many Henderson based pipes. The Redwood tenors were a go, but the Kinnaird bass, not so much. I found it difficult to hear the beating of the bass and the tuning point seemed to be very narrow, with little room for error. The tuning changed between when I was moving the drone on the pin versus on my shoulder which is a situation that doesn’t work. So we put the polycarbonate Canning bass reed back in and while better, I still wasn’t satisfied with the ease of tuning the bass. My first criteria for which bass reed to use is “can I tune it?” Second, “does it blend well with the tenors?” If in a band setting, “does it strike in reliably?” That’s about it really. So, I grabbed a favorite Rocket bass of mine, an Atherton spec one. Ahhhhh, the tone is glorious, as can be heard below (still with Redwood tenors). Unfortunately, while the Redwood tenors are commercially available, not sure how to get my hands on more of these Rockets reliably. We need to test another couple bass reeds. I’m thinking Crozier Glass will be a good fit, but we shall see!

Fair Maid and Troy’s Wedding – Listen to that F (and B)!

Old Chanter and Rakes of Kildare – I’m still working on holding the Es in the 3rd part of Old Chanter.

I Love Gellaitry Bagpipes

I had a lot of fun playing random stuff yesterday. I hope you enjoy listening in on my jams:

Galician, Irish, Scottish Set: Muineira de Casu, Kitty Lie Over, & Rory Gallagher

The best 6/8 march ever followed by one I don’t remember very well: Leaving Port Askaig & Farewell to the Creeks

The grooviest tune I know followed by the second grooviest I don’t quite know: Pressed for Time & The High Drive

Ain’t no sissy Rakes around here: Rakes of Kildare, Snuff Wife, Thief of Lochaber, & The Hen’s March

New drones – what do you think?

So a guy in my band dropped off a new set of pipes. I hemped up the drones of his set to fit into my band pipe’s stocks (of Chris Terry manufacture). So the audio that follows is of my band set – the drones + these new drones. I figured I’d knock out a few of our band sets while I was at it. Sorry about the sharp F and flat high A, at times, and occasional cut out. Band chanter is Colin Kyo. Band reed is Gilmour. I used Redwood tenor reeds and an Ezee drone bass reed of some ilk (not the standard reed). The mic was placed behind me since we’re listening to the drones here (I’m a drone guy, what can I say?).

Scarce O’ Tatties, Cork Hill, and Portree Bay

Kalabakan and Bridge something or other

Glasgow Police Pipers and Troy’s Wedding

High Road to Linton, Sleepy Maggie, and Dancing Feet

Calista McLaurin’s and Kate Martin’s Waltzes

The bass drone may be a tad quiet, of course Redwood tenor reeds offer a bold tone without the harshness of other bold tenor reeds, so it may be relative. Both the tenors and bass tune very low down on the mounts. I guess that’s to be expected since the drones were probably made in Pakistan and are therefore expected to be quite flat relative to modern bagpipe pitch (my band chanter tunes to A 482 Hz). Do your ears feel violated now? I kind of do. I just spent 30 minutes recording Pakistani drones when I could have been playing the usual Terry, Gellaitry, Henderson, or Glencoe drones. If you’re wondering, the Colin Kyo pipes are off with Murray getting a refurb and the Jeffers pipes are being played by student; I didn’t sell them ;o). Of course, the original Pakistani pipes were unplayable. The bag looks like paper (not leather!), the SM-90 knock off drone reeds looked gross, I have enough experience with Pakistani sets to not bother with the chanter, and there ain’t no way in hell I’m going to put that blowpipe in my mouth. Who knows what carcinogenic lacquer/dye they put on that thing. The drone reed seats aren’t really tapered as they end in a hard edge despite being bigger than the bore for a short way up the drone (not enough to get a drone reed all the way up in there mind you, which would be nice since the drones are so flat).

Anyways, just goes to show Pakistani drones do work, sort of. After you buy a real bag, real chanter, real drone reeds, and a real chanter reed. Yeah, probably should have just started with a real bagpipe from the get go. Less mucking about, and you won’t feel violated for having gotten them to work and realized you could have been playing a real set of bagpipes the whole time.

Once I get a new field recorder (this Zoom I’ve been using for years won’t leave “low” gain mode making it unusable for what I’m about to say), I plan to start uploading audio of my new addiction, bellows blown smallpipes!

New chanter & reed on Memorial Day

Some time ago I traded David M. a Naill chanter for a Kron Medalist; well more like I wasn’t playing the Naill and he felt me just sending it to him was not right so he sent a Medalist back to me. ;o) It reeds differently than my standard Colin Kyo’s so I wasn’t having much luck with my usual stash of reeds. However, I just remembered I bought a stash of Melvin reeds but never got them to work in the Colin Kyo (the low A being too sharp if I recall correctly which is unlikely) and figured they might work in the Medalist. So, I dug out the box of Melvin reeds and popped when in this Kron Medalist and away we went. There’s tape on high G, that’s it.

It is Memorial Day today and with the recent suggestions that this is the worse day to thank a veteran as they have their own day (Veteran’s Day), I was having a bit of trouble coming up with what I should do instead of BBQ since a ubiquitous number of “it isn’t national BBQ day” Facebook posts also reminded me to not treat it as a vacation. Being stuck between a rock and a vacation, I decided to play the bagpipes. Below is what I came up with; my band’s new 3/4 march set Lochanside and Kilworth Hills followed by my own composition named after my late grandfather Marcus McLaurin, a man I never met though he did survive WWII.

I haven’t practiced more than once a week (at band practice) for the last couple months (you might notice this is my first post in 4 months) so I’m a bit rusty. Went bowling this morning (rare event) so the right hand is a bit tired. Kron Medalist chanter, Melvin chanter reed, Chris Terry pipes with Rocket drone reeds. Happy Memorial Day!

Lochanside, Kilworth Hills, Marcus McLaurin of the 772nd Tank Battalion, WWII

I still own Gellaitry’s ya know!

Just thought a little reminder was in order, here are my Gellaitry‘s with Redwood tenors and an original Kinnaird bass. I guess I should have recorded these with the mic in front of me instead of behind for once, these drones are loud with these reeds! CK chanter and Husk chanter reed this go around.

74th’s Slow March, Room 35, and Moonshine

The Rock and Scotsaire Hornpipe